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JO HANSON: Pioneering Environmental Artist Dies in San Francisco

by Susan Leibovitz Steinman

"All of my work takes shape with love and care and takes issue with waste and disregard. I feel the work as a metaphor for transformation and transcendence. It insists that we change our ways and our thinking and become guardians of the resources of the earth which supports our life and is more fragile and endangered than we used to believe possible."
--Jo Hanson (1918 - 2007)

Jo Hanson, a pioneering spirit in both environmental and feminist activist art movements, died Tuesday March 13 at her home in San Francisco. The SF Museum of Modern Art, Oakland Museum of California, Fresno Museum, and Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC are among the institutions that have exhibited her innovative work that transformed urban waste into meaningful art.

Jo Hanson at home with her work. Photo: Lori Eanes.
Jo Hanson at home with her work. Photo: Lori Eanes.
Hanson came to prominence early in the 1970’s, soon after she moved into a deteriorated but stately Victorian on Buchanan Street. Once she had resuscitated the house into a landmark, she tackled its windy litter-strewn sidewalk. Her personal act of sweeping one sidewalk grew into a celebrated public art practice and citywide anti-litter campaign. Her compiled volumes of urban detritus are recognized as an artistic political tour de force that raised community awareness as it chronicled rapidly changing demographics.

Not content to be a cloistered artist, Hanson organized city-wide street sweepings, children’s anti-litter art campaigns for City Hall, and led a famous bus tour of San Francisco street dumping sites—all extensions of her conceptual real-life artworks. Hanson’s community-inclusive strategies set precedents in public ecoart, created models for younger artists, and gave poor neighborhoods visual access to City Hall.

Her first nationally touring artwork was an inventive mix of sculpture, printmaking, photography and sound, “The Crab Orchard Cemetery,” based on her Southern Illinois ancestral graveyard. One writer lauded the1974 installation as exploring roots before Alex Haley and death before the Kubler-Ross book.

A vocal SF Arts Commissioner for six years in the 1980’s, Hanson was known for championing the inclusion of deserving underrepresented women and artists of color in the City’s art collections. She was instrumental in efforts to save the Coit Tower murals and the Lucien Labaudt murals at the Beach Chalet; and the acquisition of public art for San Francisco International Airport.

Jo Hanson,
Jo Hanson, "Art That's Sweeping the City", Sweeping (for the camera) by her front steps, San Francisco, CA, 1980.
In the late 1980’s Hanson convinced NORCAL Sanitary Waste recycling and disposal company to develop an artist-in-residency program, offering a studio and stipend for emerging and well-known artists to create artwork from the waste stream to raise public awareness. Nationally recognized and awarded, the AIR program has become hugely successful benefiting 100+ artists and the San Francisco public. Each year more than 2500 SF school children visit the AIR studio and tour its reclamation sculpture garden.

Hanson initiated and collaborated on myriad ecoart exhibits, articles, books, lectures and programs. She instituted, and was awarded for, ecoart programming at Bioneers--the annual international gathering of ecological innovators in Marin County. She was proud of co founding in 1996 WEAD—the Women Environmental Artists Directory, a journal, website and international network connecting and documenting the artwork of more than 200 women ecoartists, that also produces yearly exhibits and outreach events.

Recipient of both a National Endowment for the Arts artist’s fellowship (1977) and visual arts project grant (1979), Hanson received the 1997 Distinguished Woman Artist Award from the Fresno Art Museum Council of 100. In 1992 the Northern California Regional Women’s Caucus honored her for Lifetime Achievement for Art. In 1997 the National Women’s Caucus for Art honored her Outstanding Achievement in Visual Arts.

Hanson held two masters’ degrees, one in education from the University of Illinois, and reflecting her career change in the 1960’s, another in art from San Francisco State.

Jo Hanson is survived and remembered by friends and family, including her children Leni Reeves and Zack Schlesinger, and her grandchildren Ilya Reeves, Aaron Reeves and Jillian Schlesinger.

© 2010